Tuesday, May 04, 2021

An unsolved mystery in early Huntington Beach

San Pedro Harbor, circa 1890. (Courtesy WaterAndPower.org)

In May 1891, a mysterious man with a gunshot wound was found dead on the shore at Shell Beach -- now called Huntington Beach. It was the first time that sparsely inhabited corner of Orange County made the newspapers in any significant way, and the details of the story inspire head-scratching.

Visitors to today's Huntington Beach were so few in that era that it took days for anyone to notice the body lying in the surf. It was discovered late in the day on May 14th, and a phone call was placed to Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy the following morning. Upon arrival, it was found that the dead man had a large bullet hole in his head. By later that same day, the body was in Anaheim, undergoing an autopsy by Coroner Frank Ey.

According to the Los Angeles Herald, "The deceased, when examined, had no air in the lungs whatever, one of the surest signs that dissolution must have taken place before the body reached the water."

The following day, the Los Angeles Times reported the man was "about 55 years of age. He had gray hair and whiskers, the latter trimmed close to the face. His weight was about one hundred and seventy pounds. The body was dressed in a blue suit of clothes and checked shirt. The hole in the head was made by a large-sized bullet, probably a Winchester Rifle ball. There was $65 on the body when it was found. The money was securely sewed with a fine wire in the pocket of the pants and so secreted as to have almost been overlooked by the Coroner. There is no clew as to the circumstances of the death or identity of the deceased."

Orange County Coroner Frank Ey. (Courtesy First American Corp)

In fact, the body was that of David Crockett, a baker with a hazy past. 

Around May fourth Crockett had arrived in San Pedro from Los Angeles and checked in at Proche's Hotel & Restaurant. He said he was from Sacramento, but that his relatives lived in Springfield, Illinois. While in town, he idled about and unsuccessfully searched for someone willing write out his will for him. Finding no takers, he returned to Los Angeles. 

On May 9th, he returned to San Pedro, went into a bank, and drew out an amount of cash. That evening, he asked a hotel clerk if she would write his will for him. When she refused, he said she would soon discover why he'd made the request. Hours later, Crockett's hat and coat (with about $6 left in the pockets) were found abandoned on a pile of lumber on the San Pedro Lumber Company wharf.

San Pedro locals presumed he had killed himself. Once in the water, unusually strong tides that night would have pulled him past Smith's Island and out of the bay, and the usual down-coast currents could easily have carried him to Shell Beach.

Less than a week later, Orange County, Sheriff Lacy and Santa Ana Constable Jack Landell were investigating their mystery victim, absolutely confident they had a case of homicide on their hands. They didn't make their suspicions public immediately, not wanting to tip off the killer. Soon, they were on the trail of a man who had been on Smith's Island (just inside the entrance to San Pedro Bay), but who had left by boat about the same time as Crockett's disappearance.

Orange County Sheriff Theophilus “Theo” Lacy

Meanwhile photographs of the dead man were distributed around Southern California, and soon a positive identification was made. 

Now the San Pedro authorities had a body to go with their supposed suicide. Likewise, the Orange County authorities switched tracks completely, dropped their murder investigation, and adopted the suicide theory wholeheartedly.

But more than 120 years later, some of the facts still don't seem to jibe. 

Perhaps the missing rifle and bullet ended up at the bottom of the bay. But how likely is it that Crockett shot himself in the head with a Winchester rifle? Not only would that be fairly awkward, but one would think the lengthy news articles concerning his suspected suicide would have made mention of him owning, buying, or carrying a hard-to-conceal rifle. 

And where did the gun and bullet go? Into the bay? 

And more importantly, how could a man die from a gunshot on a wharf, have time for all the last traces of air to leave his lungs, and only then fall into bay -- All without leaving anything more than a hat and coat behind as evidence? At the very least, there should have been blood on the wharf.

Certainly, Crockett was preparing for his own death. But was he planning suicide, or did he know someone was coming to kill him?

And most of all, what was the rest of Crockett's story?

Perhaps some intrepid historian will stumble across at least a few more of the answers someday.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Why is W. H. Spurgeon called “Uncle Billy?”

The ever-bewhiskered William H. Spurgeon

I was recently asked why local historians sometimes refer to Santa Ana’s founding father, William Henry Spurgeon (1829-1915), as “Uncle Billy.” 

“’Uncle Billy’ seems too familiar,” writes one of my favorite readers. “Contemporaries may have called him that (and he may have even encouraged it), but it just seems weird to be referring to him that way now.  At this point, there's not anyone alive who would have called him that.”

It's a fair point. But one might also point out that Spurgeon was (as a very public figure and politician) known by the public as Uncle Billy and was often referred to as such in the press. It’s a bit like folk artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses, who was widely known as “Grandma Moses” and who is still regularly referred to in that way almost sixty years after her death. Likewise, at least some contingent of locals have been calling William Spurgeon “Uncle Billy” since at least the early 1890s.

My aforementioned reader replies that it would at least be an improvement to refer to him as Uncle Billy Spurgeon -- not just Uncle Billy -- since he's not as nationally well known as Grandma Moses and thus requires additional identification. Again, a  fair point.

But let's take a step back and look at the man himself,...

W. H. Spurgeon was born in Kentucky, raised in Missouri, and first came to California in 1852 to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush. He returned to Missouri in 1859 but in 1865 returned overland to California with his wife Martha, his parents, and other relatives. When Martha died in 1867 he returned to Missouri again before finally coming back to California for good in 1869.

The third structure to bear the title of The Spurgeon Building

In 1868 and 1869, farmer Jacob Ross, Sr. bought a few thousand acres of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana from the heirs of the Yorba family. Upon his return to California, Spurgeon and a business associate, Major Ward Bradford, were looking for a place to establish a new town. An engineer who’d worked on partitioning the Yorbas’ rancho extolled the merits of that land to Spurgeon. So, in October 1869, Spurgeon and Bradford purchased seventy four acres from Ross for $594. The mustard on the land grew so high that Spurgeon had to climb a sycamore tree to see the property on which he’d just spent most of his life savings.

Bradford briefly owned the west half of the land before selling his interest and moving out of the area. Spurgeon owned the east half and made big plans. But it was initially a rough, pioneer life. In 1872, Spurgeon married Jennie English, who later recalled moving into the first house in town, at Sycamore St. and Second St, "which as yet had no roof, no doors and no windows."

Spurgeon mapped out a 24-block town site, which he named Santa Ana in honor of the old rancho. The original town boundaries were First St., Spurgeon St., Seventh St. and West St. (now Broadway). A street adjacent to the tree Spurgeon had climbed was appropriately named Sycamore. 

As the town grew, Spurgeon remained its chief booster and benefactor. He built the first road into town, he sold lots at low prices to encourage newcomers, and he asked various businesses to relocate to Santa Ana. He also started the town’s first store, the First National Bank of Santa Ana, the Santa Ana Gas & Electric Co., and the Santa Ana post office, where he served as Postmaster. 

Mrs. William Spurgeon, III and William Spurgeon IV plant a sycamore near the site of the original climbed by Uncle Billy. Historian Jim Sleeper (left) looks on. (Oct. 1976)

Spurgeon dug the town’s first artesian well and founded the town’s water company. He built roads from Anaheim to Santa Ana and on to Tustin, as well as the first road from Santa Ana to the coast. 

He built the Spurgeon Building at Fourth and Sycamore (the first of several with that name) and finagled to get his town included on the stagecoach line. He then served as the town’s Wells Fargo agent. He also sat on the boards of the Santa Ana Land Improvement Co., the Santa Ana Valley Walnut Growers’ Association, and the Santa Ana & Newport Railroad, and served for three years as president of the critically important Santa Ana Valley Irrigation Co. (SAVI). 

Perhaps most critically, in the late 1870s Spurgeon convinced the Southern Pacific Railroad to bring its Anaheim line down into Santa Ana, bypassing the rival communities of Orange and Tustin and ensuring Santa Ana’s continued growth and prosperity.

It also quickly became one of the area’s most important pollical movers and shakers. In 1877 and 1878 he served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, representing the portion of the county that included Santa Ana.

When the City of Santa Ana incorporated in 1886, Spurgeon was the obvious choice as the town’s first mayor. The following year – despite being an ardent Democrat in the Republican-leaning 78th District – he was also elected to the State Assembly. Over the next few years, Spurgeon’s combined efforts with Republican James McFadden helped lead to the 1889 creation of the County of Orange. This new county had Santa Ana as its county seat and William H. Spurgeon as the chairman of its first Board of Supervisors. Later, Spurgeon sold land to the county (at a discount) for a courthouse, and Orange County’s government has been centered in that part of town ever since.

The Spurgeons with a giant rose bush, Santa Ana, 1913.

An early use of Spurgeon’s nickname, “Uncle Billy,” appeared in a June 25, 1892 Los Angeles Times article about a meeting of local Democrat party bigwigs. It mentions that “Uncle Billy Spurgeon was the unanimous choice . . . for grand marshal of the evening.” 

Two years later, the Los Angeles Herald (Aug 14, 1894) referred to “Uncle Billy” in an article about Santa Ana Democrats, and never even mentioned his full name, assuming readers would already know.

In fact, newspapers from the Anaheim Gazette to the Santa Ana Standard soon began frequently referring to him casually as Uncle Billy or Uncle Billy Spurgeon.

The reasoning behind the moniker isn’t spelled out in print until a 1907 biographical article in the Santa Ana Register, which cited many of the accomplishments of “Uncle Billy Spurgeon, as he is lovingly called by all who know him.”

Indeed, because of all his efforts – and perhaps also because of his personality – the citizens of the burgeoning City of Santa Ana came to feel a real affection and kinship for their energetic, resourceful, and benevolent patriarch. From those warm feelings, it seems, sprang the moniker “Uncle Billy.”

Those who have studied local history – from Carey McWilliams to Terry Stephenson to Phil Brigandi – have run across this nickname countless times in newspapers and pioneer accounts. Accordingly, their own works sometimes reference “Uncle Billy” as well.

I'll admit I've used the nickname myself -- a habit I picked up from Brigandi, who picked it up from from Jim Sleeper (and possibly Don Meadows), who, in turn, undoubtedly learned it from a wide array of old-timers. 

Is it one of those quirky local mannerism that helps tie us together as a community across the generations? Is it an ongoing tribute to an avuncular pioneer? Or is it just weird and inappropriate? 

You be the judge.